During my last visit to the book store, I intentionally looked for books outside the YA and Dystopian genres. My brain needs diversity and for quite some time hadn’t been getting enough of it. There were specific titles on my to-buy list, and while looking for one of them, I happened upon The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Come on. The title alone is enough to garner at least a second look.
We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.
Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her.
This particular book is what I consider literary fiction for three reasons:
1. It’s written in a poetic style using a comprehensive vocabulary
2. The plot comes secondary to the characters and their growth
3. It aims to answer a larger question; in this instance the meaning of life
In all honesty, it took a while for me to begin enjoying the story. It is written from the point of view of two characters, fifty-four year old Renee Michel and twelve year old Paloma Josse. Through the first third of the book, Renee’s observations were lengthy and hard to follow. Literary snobs would love it.
Sometime, before the middle of the book, I found myself completely engrossed in the lives of these characters. Despite being translated from French to English, the language was beautiful. I marked several passages just because I liked the way they sounded in my head.
The title of the book is also explained in a rather stylish manner: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”
During my time with Renee, Paloma and Kakuro Ozu I laughed, cried, cheered and mourned. The story itself is beauty tangled in a barbed reality. As I accompanied Renee and Paloma on their journeys of self-discovery, I stumbled upon revelations about myself. Muriel Barbery has created a very satisfying work of fiction.